Amid the pots of glitter and jars of pigment, Karoline Wells mixes up a recipe that took her nearly a year to formulate. She grabs a glass measuring bowl full of red liquid and dips a thermometer inside, finally satisfied with the temperature. It’s time to make lipstick.
“She does stuff with a pile of wax and oil that it probably shouldn’t do,” said Michael Wells, Karoline’s husband and business partner. “It’s amazing.”
In a time when many cosmetic houses outsource their manufacturing to a handful of factories in the U.S. or overseas, the Elixery is a rarity. The company still makes its lipsticks by hand the old-fashioned way in its Minneapolis lab.
But for Karoline Wells, the Elixery’s founder, making a product that looks and wears well isn’t enough. Instead, the trained scientist uses her background to craft unique colors with a conscious.
Since launching in 2009, the Elixery has amassed a growing following of women (including hip hop star Dessa) eager to support Well’s mission, and to buy lipstick from someone who understands the science behind a classic red lip.
“We can explain why [the lipstick] works and adjust things to make it work better,” Wells said. “We can be very honest because we’re looking at the raw ingredients and checking out the source to make sure they’re truly cruelty free and high quality.”
Inside the Lab
The Elixery’s lab is tucked away in an unassuming brick building in northeast Minneapolis. Chiseled into the stone above the main entrance are the words “research laboratories,” an ode to the building’s former occupants, scientists from General Mills.
Now a creative melting pot of Twin Cities entrepreneurs has set up shop in the labs: artists, chocolate makers, chemists and of course, lipstick makers.
As a kid, Wells took an interest in plants and herbs from her grandmother who was an herbalist, and soon began whipping up facemasks and lip balms in the kitchen. After studying biology and chemistry in college, she pursued clinical research and teaching while crafting homemade laundry soap and skincare products on the side.
“Lipstick wasn’t the really the intention. It was a side project,” Wells said. “I just sort of got obsessed. It was the hardest cosmetic to make and basically just drew me in.”
But Wells made it even more difficult through a list of “internally imposed rules” that guided the creation of her formula. Not only did she want a moisturizing color that lasted, but she also wanted a vegan and cruelty-free lipstick that didn’t use ingredients tested on animals.
“I had to look at what that animal ingredient was actually doing and try to find a way around it so I could create the same property and texture,” Wells said.
That’s where her previous experience in a lab paid off, and continued to move the company forward as she developed a custom line of colors for the Elixery to match an array of skin tones.
It takes a discerning eye to mix, match and reproduce color. After four years of practice, and plenty of time spent staring at tubes of lipstick and jars of pigment, Wells has developed just that.
“What we usually try to focus on is looking at skin tone first,” Wells said. “You can have a really beautiful color, but if it doesn’t look good on somebody, then it’s not worth it.”
Once Wells heats the liquid to the right temperature, it’s time to pour it into the mold and then let the lipstick set up in the freezer.
“I come from a long line of engineers and people that have been involved in manufacturing,” Wells said. “I’ve always been fascinated with how things are made.”
While many cosmetic companies outsource their manufacturing, Wells wanted to keep the Elixery’s production local and provide jobs for people in the community. The company is still a small outfit, but Wells hopes to one day expand and open her own manufacturing plant in Minneapolis.
“People kind of forget this can happen anywhere.” Michael Wells said. “Hard winters make people do creative things.”
Michael Wells isn’t afraid to slap on some lipstick if it helps Karoline perfect new color combinations. His favorite lipstick from Elixery’s line is Lakshmi (an iridescent fuchsia that seems to glow), and he’s determined to introduce more women to the color he loves.
“When you put it on, even I feel sassier wearing it,” he said.
But lipstick tester isn’t his only job. His main duty is flaming—a process that involves a small torch and a deft perception of how much heat a stick of lipstick can take before it melts. Flaming gives lipstick its glossy sheen and removes any minor imperfections from the surface. Each tube gets a quick pass through the flame and is inspected by Michael to make sure it’s up to par.
2101 Hennepin Ave., #53
Minneapolis, MN 55413